[Moderated by Matt Jones]
(I find it funny that the ball they are using in what appears to be a game says “Game Ball,” silly Europeans).
It’s no secret around college basketball that John Calipari has a bit of a reputation for recruiting the best of the best. After winning Kentucky’s eighth national title this season seven players departed (6 to the draft, 1 graduated), so to say some replacement to the roster is necessary is a bit of an understatement. At a normal school the fans (and probably coaches too) would be short circuiting about the potential lack of players to field a team, not Kentucky. Calipari has recently reeled in his fourth straight recruiting class so the cause for concern is virtually non-existent. Even though this class is absolutely loaded with talent it hasn’t gained a reputation for one of the most important aspects of basketball, perimeter shooting. Last season with Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, and Kyle Wiltjer surrounding the outside it made for one of the best three point shooting teams in Kentucky history, but two of the three dead eye shooters are gone so some rather large shoes need to be filled. To give some insight on how big those shoes are Darius Miller was a career 37.8% three point shooter and Doron Lamb finished as Kentucky’s all-time leader for career three point percentage at 47.5%, so I think it’s safe to say our three point efficiency will take a dip next season despite Kyle Wiltjer (a career 43% shooter) returning for his Sophomore season. Since there will be a void in the perimeter shooting area next season Mislav Brzoja may be the answer to filling that empty space that Miller and Lamb left.
Brzoja, the 6’5” shooting guard from Whitestown, Indiana/Croatia, recently played in the 2011 U18 European Men’s Division A Championship and put up some respectable numbers. In nine games while averaging 32.6 minutes he put up a very respectable 13.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per-game. By looking at those basic numbers the most impressive thing to take away (other than the obvious 13.7 points per game) is the fact that a shooting guard was pulling down 5.7 rebounds per game. This gives an indication that he is very capable of tracking down back his own misses and getting second chance shots. Also, in the nine games played in the Euro U18 Championship he connected on a very respectable 38.6% of his threes (17-44). Granted those aren’t Doron like numbers but if he were to suit up for the Wildcats he would aid in the perimeter shooting department immensely. If he were to accompany Kyle Wiltjer from three-point land that would present a very difficult set of match-ups for a vast majority of our opponents. If your team is unbalanced (see Kentucky, 2010/11) that allows the opponent to focus on taking away individual strengths like post scoring without fear of repercussion. Effectively guarding the perimeter while defending excellent wings and forwards is a daunting task that requires man-to-man defense or a tough match-up zone to limit efficiency from all corners of the floor, since most teams lack the athletes to play against such balance it creates a huge mismatch. This is why Brzoja (or a player similar like Mark Lyons or Torian Graham) is so important, they stretch out the defense preventing double teams down low.
Brzoja, while a skilled perimeter shooter, does have some areas where he could improve. Two of the areas where he could use the most improvement are interior shooting and ball handling. During the 2011 U18 European Men’s Division A Championship Brzoja only shot an average 45.6% from the interior (26-57) and turned the ball over an average of 3.4 times per-game. His sub par shooting in the interior is not much cause of concern though as this is only slightly below what an average Shooting Guard would shoot form the interior (for perspective Doron Lamb only converted on 48.1% from two last season). While that’s not too concerning his turnover rate is cause for alarm. Granted I haven’t ever seen a full game of his so I don’t know the full context of the turnovers or the tempo of the team he was playing on but 3.4 per-game is quite a few. Why is this so concerning? A few months ago I did some research and found that Calipari’s best teams don’t turn the ball over on offense. His three most recent Final Four teams have been well below the national Turnover Rate average (This year’s team while not on the chart fit the profile as well). If Brzoja were to become a Wildcat he would in all likelihood be sharing primary ball handling responsibilities when Ryan Harrow is out of the game (Harrow has proven he does not turn the ball over at a high rate based off his Freshman stats), and given the fact that Mislav has a bit of a turnover problem, he may not be ready for significant minutes at Kentucky.
If Brzoja were to receive a scholarship offer from Kentucky I could see him being a very serviceable player over the course of his career. Since his position on the team would be a spot up shooter who moonlights handling the ball when Harrow is unavailable, his minutes could be limited given his turnover problem. If he were to sign with Kentucky I can see him playing the Kyle Wiltjer role of quirky music video maker/outside shooting specialist his Freshman season. At the current juncture I think the better option would be Mark Lyons, Xavier transfer. Given the fact that Lyons shot 38% from three last season while turning the ball over only 2.2 times per-game against stronger competition I think that Brzoja should be the second option at this time. I certainly would love to have him at Kentucky over the course of multiple seasons, but there is a player available now that gives you a much better chance at winning immediately in Mark Lyons.
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